Ariel Ramirez uses a computer at the Best Buy Teen Tech Center at The Neighborhood Place, where she learned digital photo editing. Credit: Shari Biediger for the San Antonio Report

It’s a mess in the room where 18-year-old Ariel sleeps at her grandmother’s home on San Antonio’s Westside. In that, she’s a lot like many girls her age. But Ariel’s cluttered bedroom reveals her love for writing — always on paper — the many life stories she has to tell.

Adopted at age 5 with her three siblings after drug addiction overwhelmed their mother, Ariel is now a senior at Kennedy High School in the Edgewood School District. She’s also an expert with photo editing software, a skill she learned in a space that’s not only like home to her, but has also given her the chance to picture a different future for herself than what statistics predict.

The Neighborhood PlaceEl Hogar de Los Vecinos – sits at the intersection of the city’s three most economically challenged zip codes. This is where more than 28% of the population lives below the poverty line. In one day alone, there will be 600 child abuse calls to Child Protective Services (CPS) and 30,000 people will struggle to put food on the table.

These are neighborhoods where the cycle of poverty, violence, unemployment, and low educational attainment is hard to escape.

The Family Service Association, San Antonio’s largest and one of its oldest nonprofits – established in 1903 – opened the Neighborhood Place in 2006. After raising $5 million in December 2016, the organization took possession of the four-acre property and buildings. As a collaborative hub that brings together the services of several social agencies, including CPS, the 64,000 sq. ft. former elementary school serves 70,000 area residents each year.

But the Neighborhood Place is just one of many locations where Family Service partners with 30 other service organizations to provide education, workforce and financial sustainability, mental well-being, and civic and parent engagement programs.

In short, it provides support that reduces family chaos.

Last year, the organization worked toward that goal by serving more than 98,000 people – from infants to seniors – in Bexar County and 15 surrounding counties. Funding for its annual $20 million budget comes from government contracts (65%), United Way (10%), and foundation and private donors.

“We are a human service organization that helps individuals and families reach their maximum potential and life success while building on their individual and family strengths,” said President and CEO Nancy Hard, who has led the organization since 2001. “Individuals are part of a larger group, like in a family, and those are the groups that make up our community. The more successful they are, the stronger the nucleus of the family will be and the stronger our community will be.

“We are one of few nonprofits focused on not just the individual and his or her problem, but also [on] the individual and the family and the community simultaneously.”

On Feb. 14, The San Antonio Area Foundation and the Corporate Child Care Collaborative Fund – known as SMART START – rewarded that focus and commitment with a $2 million endowment for the ongoing support of early childhood education programs.

As the city’s second-largest Head Start provider, Family Service will use the funds to help child care centers seek national accreditation and provide training, mentorships, and best-practice modeling for child care providers and substitutes.

Just days after that announcement, the Mutual of America Foundation also recognized the Family Service Association with one of three national-level Community Partnership Awards for its Financial Empowerment Center.

Funded by Bloomberg, the center provides financial literacy programs and counseling. In three years, the program helped 5,000 people reduce their debt by $6 million, increase their credit ratings, and build up critical emergency funds.

One woman in the program went from homelessness born of an abusive relationship to buying her own house.

Kimberly Sama is a youth education manager at the Neighborhood Place and one of the 500 people employed by the Family Service Association. She oversees 15 youth camps, five in-school programs, summer youth internships, a leadership program, and the Neighborhood Place’ municipal court programs.

A former Peace Corps worker, who spent 10 years in Africa and worked on gender violence prevention and child mortality in Mali, Sama brings a unique global perspective to her work with San Antonio’s youth. Many of the challenges with economic empowerment, she said, are the same here as elsewhere.

At the Best Buy Teen Tech Center, a bright classroom in the Neighborhood Place, youth like Ariel meet after school and on summer afternoons in the wired “think space” where they create, learn, and even connect with youth in other parts of the world. On the day the Rivard Report visited, two teens were working out a song on a keyboard, several boys were in front of computer monitors, and two girls were working together on an art project. Volunteers from Our Lady of the Lake University monitored the activity.

Computer labs are one of the many services offered at The Neighborhood Place.
The Best Buy Teen Tech Center at The Neighborhood Place. Credit: Shari Biediger for the San Antonio Report

According to Sama, studies have shown that teens who visit the Tech Center feel better about school, and some have used the space to collaborate and start their own businesses doing social media consulting or building computers.

Ariel began visiting the center when she was in eighth grade, walking there with her favorite stuffed giraffe tucked under her arm and her friend Victor, who wouldn’t go on his own. Almost five years later, she’s in the center every day that she is not at her part-time job at South Park Mall; she’s a mentor to the younger kids and an assistant to the adult coordinator.

“When I get here now, nobody is older than me. I’m watching everyone come in and get attached to one another and it feels like a huge family,” Ariel said. “People tell each other things and I help them with their homework.”

Ariel hopes to one day attend Texas A&M University-San Antonio. She wants to be a writer and return to the Neighborhood Place to help other children who had a start similar to hers.

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.